Last week's Academy Award nominations carried several surprising messages:
First, that the independently made movie has stopped lurking and has arrived, decisively, as a major artistic alternative to studio-made movies.
Secondly, that it's still impossible to predict which way "the Academy voter" will jump, no matter how many organizations' votes precede the nominations.
And, finally, that major Hollywood companies may have decided that the bottom line is more important than prestige in the Oscar race.
In the first case: The 59th nominations are dotted with the names of independently produced films--"Platoon," "A Room With a View," "Salvador," " 'Crocodile' Dundee," "Mona Lisa," and "My Beautiful Laundrette" among them. Some of these finally ended up in the hands of mainstream distributors, but they had to endure a lot of cold shoulders along the way.
"Platoon" and "A Room With a View," the nominations leaders with eight each, were both rejected (and rejected, then rejected again) by Hollywood before the English companies Hemdale and Goldcrest, respectively, got them moving. "Platoon" ultimately was an Orion-Hemdale co-venture, but no matter how smart Orion might look now, it was no more interested in covering the film's $6-million budget alone than anyone else.
The independently made film rose dramatically in prominence last year with the Oscar nominations for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Trip to Bountiful," and the Oscars won for best actor by William Hurt for "Kiss" and Geraldine Page for "Trip." If you consider the films this year that were financed at least partially outside the studio system, you get a very impressive list of nominees this year.
The best-actor ballot includes Bob Hoskins ("Mona Lisa"), James Woods ("Salvador") and Dexter Gordon (" 'Round Midnight"). The best supporting actor ballot has Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe from "Platoon," Dennis Hopper from "Hoosiers" and Denholm Elliott from "Room With a View." Maggie Smith, from "Room With a View," got a deserved spot on the best supporting actress list.
Clearly, more than half of the year's most vital and original movies have emerged from this alternative method of film making. What will be interesting to see is whether these fledgling companies retain their level of brashness and unpredictability in the face of increasing success.
Any number of oddities bear out the unpredictability of the academy voter. The favorite theory--that no one is ever nominated from a generally unpopular or unsuccessful film--is destroyed, on the one hand, by Jane Fonda's surprising best-actress nomination in "The Morning After," an unbeloved movie generally, and supported on the other as academy voters ignored Dennis Hopper's demoniacal performance in "Blue Velvet" in favor of his far more mainstream one in "Hoosiers."
Logic seems to have gone astray as Randa Haines, who directed the performances of three nominees in "Children of a Lesser God"--Marlee Matlin, William Hurt and Piper Laurie--and whose film was a best picture nominee was left out in the director category. The Spielberg syndrome, again, in all its inexplicability.
The toughest category, hands down, to predict is best actor, between the sentimental choices (Paul Newman and Dexter Gordon), the scrappers (Bob Hoskins and James Woods) and William Hurt, whose win last year may work against a performance with a 9.9 degree of technical difficulty.
With the technical branches of the academy applying the standards of their crafts to the candidates, it is very hard to understand how the intricate and integral sound and sound effects for "Blue Velvet" could be passed over in favor of that military trio: "Heartbreak Ridge," "Platoon" and "Top Gun." (Or, for that matter, for the war of the mothers in "Aliens.")
And members of the costume branch must have a singular ability to focus on costumes to the exclusion of everything else for "Pirates" and "Otello" to be nominated. "Mona Lisa," "Blue Velvet" and "Betty Blue" were all too contemporary?
Among the documentary features, this was the year that "Shoah," "Sherman's March" or the sublime "Gardens of Bliss" were possible nominees, none of which survived the pre-screening committee. Is length now working against great films? Must they all fit neatly into a television format? One would certainly hope not.
Finally, in the matter of studios and prestige movies vs. money makers.
The movies that keep their studios in the black are less and less frequently that studio's top-drawer product. Five years ago, Paramount walked away with 35 nominations, collected by films like "Reds," "Ragtime," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Dragonslayer" and "Atlantic City."
This year, Paramount was undisputed king of the box office, but it had to be content with 14 nominations, spread among four films: "Children of a Lesser God," "Top Gun," "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" and " 'Crocodile' Dundee." And only one of those, "Children of a Lesser God," gave evidence of anything more than mass-audience appeal. (Trekkies, do not all write.)
Excellence and popularity don't have to be mutually exclusive, but if movies are made with one eye on an audience survey and another on the words of a marketing department, academy voters may be right in ignoring the "product" of some of our biggest film producing companies.